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Role of thought experiments in solving conceptual physics problems

Dönertaş, Şule
The purpose of this study was to contribute to the science education literature by describing how thought experiments vary in terms of the nature, purpose of use and reasoning resources behind during the solution of conceptual physics problems. Three groups of participants were selected according to the level of participants’ physics knowledge- low, medium, and high level groups- in order to capture the variation. Methodology of phenomenographic research was adapted for this study. Think aloud and retrospective questioning strategies were used throughout the individually conducted problem solving sessions. The analysis of data showed that thought experiments were frequently used cognitive tools for all level of participants while working on the problems. Four different thought experiment structures were observed which were categorized as limiting case, extreme case, simple case, and familiar case. It was also observed that participants conducted thought experiments for different purposes such as prediction, proof, and explanation. The reasoning resources running behind the thought experiment processes were classified in terms of observed facts, intuitive principles, and scientific concepts. The results of the analysis suggested that, thought experiments used as a creative reasoning instrument for theory formation or hypothesis testing by scientists can also be used by students during the inquiry processes as well as problem solving in instructional settings. It was also argued that, instructional practices can be developed according to the outcomes of thought experiments, which illuminate thinking processes of students and displays hidden or missing components of their reasoning.